Careers for Characters - Veterinarians

This is the second installment of the Careers for Characters feature. If you're confused about why this is on a writing blog, I explain it here.

Dr. Simpson is willing to share information about what it's like to be a veterinarian these days. Dr. Simpson graduated from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1978.  He owns a small animal practice south of Boston, and lives with his wife, two horses, and a pile of cats.
What's a typical day like? 
There really isn't one, and that's one of the reasons I do what I do.  It's never boring.  Mondays and Fridays are generally reserved for office appointments--wellness checks for dogs and cats, vaccinations, heartworm/Lyme's disease testing, fecal exams, with the occasional sick animal who needs to be seen.  We see lameness, abscesses, dog fights, animals hit by cars, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, not eating, not drinking, drinking too much, overweight, skinny, neglected, maggots, renal disease, liver disease, bacterial skin disease, allergic dermatitis, fleas, mange, cancers of the skin, pancreas, liver, colon, lungs, mouth, severe dental disease, bad breath, broken teeth, gingivitis, corneal ulcers, foreign bodies in eyes, noses, mouths, stomachs, intestines.  We see poisonings, shootings, neglect and all sorts of abuse.

But we also see puppies and kittens for exams and vaccinations, and that's the fun part. 

So you never know what will be coming next through the door.

Our morning starts at 9:00 A.M., getting machines and computers warmed up and ready for the day.  Litter boxes from the two resident cats have to be cleaned, and fresh food and water put out for them.  First appointment comes in at 9:30, unless there's an emergency to be seen. 

We see appointments till noon, break for lunch (I head home to feed my horses, entertain my cats, eat lunch, and back to the clinic for the afternoon.  More appointments from 3:00P.M. till 5:00, clean up, do the back-up and end of day reports on the computers, clean up, wash the floors, play with and feed the clinic cats again, turn off the blood machines and computer, lights out, leave a message on the phone, and go home.

Once at home, there are eight cats to be fed and entertained, litter boxes to clean, horses to bring into the barn after their stalls are cleaned, feed them, and then think about supper for myself.  The phone rings till nine, mostly telemarketers, but also the occasional client with an emergency that can't wait till morning to be seen, and that means a trip back to the clinic (which is twenty or twenty-five minutes away).

Evening means "Bones" on the TV, paperwork from the clinic, some online computer time, play with the house cats, do the horses again at 11:00 P.M. or so (late feeding and clean stalls) and then off to bed by midnight.

Tuesdays and Thursdays are surgery days, along with the occasional drug company representative to see.  The mornings are spays, neuters, dental cleanings, radiographs, soft-tissue surgery for things like skin tumors and such.  If there's time, I'll wax the floors and buff them.  If not, and there are pets who need to be seen, we do appointments after the surgeries, usually till 12:30 or 1:00, but we go till we're done.  We take a long break until 6:00 P.M., then back for another couple of hours of appointments, usually till 9-9:30.  Home late for supper, and off to bed.

Wednedays are off (thank Heaven!)  and Saturdays are half-days, all appointments. Saturdays are non-stop hell.  Starts at 9:00, supposed to be there till twelve, and yet are rarely out until almost three.  Get home exhausted, collapse after feeding horses, and try to survive until Monday, and do it all over again.

Thursdays are very long, Fridays very busy and long, and then Saturday to top off the week, and there's not a lot of energy left for the weekend.

Never the same day twice, tho, so it stays interesting.

You mention that you sometimes get animal abuse cases. Tragic as that is, it's also got strong dramatic potential. What happens when you get a case of abuse?

Fortunately outright animal abuse is rare, at least around our area.  Most are simply lack of knowledge rather than intentional cruelty.  A pony may look fat, but sometimes it's all coat and he's skin and bone underneath.  I have reported cases in the past to the Animal Rescue League and the MSPCA, where starvation appears to be an issue.   Their powers are limited, but they have seized both dogs and horses on occasion, and in other circumstances, the owners have simply surrendered the animals.

The police are also right around the corner from us, and the local chief has been a client and friend for the last twenty-five years.  I've only threatened to call them on two occasions.  Usually that makes the miscreant rethink what he/she's doing and fly right.
What government agencies watch over you?
Well, besides the Federal Government and DEA, who issue my DEA license, the Commonwealth of Mass. requires annual licensure and inspection.  I pay annual fees for my veterinary license, the controlled drug licenses (state and federal), the radiation license for the x-ray machine, along with the usual employee tax stuff and workman's comp. 

State Inspectors come annually to see the clinic, inspect the drugs on hand, the controlled substance safe, the x-ray machine, and generally to be sure I'm in some sort of compliance with most of the Commonwealth's rules and regulations, not throwing syringes, needles, and bodies in the trash, collecting sales tax, doing my continuing education requirements, that sort of thing.  We also have an annual OSHA safety inspection and mandatory training session for all employees at approximately $1000 a pop.

The town also stops in periodically to sniff around and see if they've missed anything they might be able to tax me on.

The State Board of Veterinary Licensure also is there to handle complaints from clients, allegations of wrong-doing (fortunately, I've never had any of these) and again be sure I'm staying current with the profession, maintaining the general standard of practice, continuing ed. and whatnot

Do veterinarians have the equivalent of the AMA? 

The AVMA is the veterinary counterpart of the AMA.  Their bimonthly journal (JAVMA) is widely read, and one of the foremost continuing ed veterinary publications.  They also offer the Journal of Veterinary Research, which I believe is monthly, and a little more esoteric.  Most veterinarians in private practice subscribe to the former.  A generation or more ago, veterinarians were fiercely independent and individualistic.  Most ran their own hospitals, most refused to 'join' any movement or group that wanted to look over their shoulders.  Where the AMA counted better than 95 percent of all MD's as members, the AVMA ran around 60 percent.  That has changed over the years as attitudes have changed, and the AVMA has become the parent group and voice for the veterinary profession, and most of us now belong to it.

One of the nice things about being a veterinarian is that the career offers almost endless possibilities for employment.  Most veterinarians end up as small animal practitioners.  But there are also food/farm animal practices.  Equine practices.  Animal sports medicine.  And all the specialties--surgery, orthopedics, internal medicine, critical care/emergency medicine, parasitology, oncology, radiology, ultrasound/MRI/CT imaging, ophthalmology, etc.  And the percentage of veterinarians choosing to specialize is increasing yearly, along with the number of large referral centers for both small animals and equines.

If private practice isn't your thing, there is research.  There is industry.  The military.  Food production/inspection.  Public Health.  Zoo/exotic animal medicine.  Marine/aquatic animal medicine.  Teaching.  A veterinarian has gone into space on the shuttle.  There are veterinarians in Congress. Really very little limit on what your veterinary training gives you the opportunity to do.

I personally enjoy private practice, as I get to do a little of everything, and no chance to get bored.  With all the specialization, I think the days of the general practitioner like myself are coming to an end, as there is so much information to digest, it's difficult to stay current in every field.

What hoops do you have to jump through to keep your license? 

We are required by the Commonwealth (every state has its own regulations) to do a minimum of fifteen hours of Continuing Education every year.  Most of us do far more than that, not including reading journals and online publications.  These continuing ed. meetings and seminars are held in every state and region, most countries of the world, and offer topics from A to Z, with a chance to talk with world-class experts in their fields, as well as exchange ideas and converse with other veterinarians and MD's from around the nation (there is, after all, only ONE medicine, whether you work on humans or animals...).

What does fiction tend to get wrong about veterinarians?  
By and large, not much.  Most of the movies I've seen with vets portrayed in them tend to get it right.  As a group, we tend to be dedicated, overworked, middle class, very law-abiding, and still tend towards independence, tho that is changing with the women and as bigger and bigger hospitals and corporate medicine have moved in over the last twenty years or so, and the hard financial realities of owning a practice have hit home.  

I believe it was "Beethovan" where the movie portrayed the vet as a sharp-dressing scoundrel and bad guy, played by ummm...Dean Jones?  Not sure. Can't recall the actor's name--he was the traitorous Doctor Uwe in "Dune" among other roles.  The 'sharp-dresssing' thing sort of bothered me.  Most of us get covered from head to toe with urine, feces, vomit, blood (sometimes our own), pus, various and sundry other stains and excretions/secretions, and I just don't see anyone wearing $500 Italian leather shoes, as was portrayed in that particular movie.  Doesn't mean we wear bib overalls by a long shot, but I at least save the good clothes for home, and use clean wrap-arounds at work.  Not that I've ever bought a pair of Italian leather shoes.  New Balance is more my style.

All Creatures Great and SmallJames Herriot's books were pretty much spot-on as regarded large animal work, which I loved doing as a young man.  Lots of fun, often very hard, dirty and unpleasant, but the farm people with their open friendliness made the job worthwhile.  The sort of fire-engine farm practice of Herriot's days is largely a thing of the past, as herd-health programs and corporate farm management have changed the way large animal work is done.  And of course, the medical practices of that day are long gone, replaced with antibiotics and effective pharmaceuticals, as well as efficacious vaccines. 

Today's veterinarian is much more about preventive health programs than is often represented.  The idea of keeping animals free of disease is much more cost-effective than trying to medicate and nurse them back to health, so that's where the emphasis is placed nowadays.  When I was a kid, the dog went to the vet for a rabies shot, or if he got sick.  That was it. 

Today, vaccines, dental care, preventive lab testing, parasite control, geriatric medicine, all contribute to keep animals and people healthy and living longer, and that's our job. 

We've talked before about the cost of becoming a veterinarian.

Lots of young vets are burdened with crushing debt loads these days, due to soaring costs of education and salaries that keep them forever poor.  A major problem for the profession, and one of the reasons that veterinary medical students are almost all women now.  Men have given up on the profession.  Not enough income to raise a family, buy a house, and repay that educational debt. 

My own class at OSU back in '78 was 135 students, of which twenty were women.  The 'scandal' of the nation, at the time, to have so many girls.  One of the kids that worked for me some years ago made it into Tufts University's vet school.  Her class of eighty-two consisted of eighty women and two men.  She graduated seven or eight years ago, $100K in debt from her undergrad at Williams College, plus another $200K from veterinary school.  She's working out on Cape Cod in a small animal clinic, earns decent money, but she's going to be paying off that debt for the better part of her entire career.


A short overview of various career paths 

More general information is available at Career Overview's website 

I hope y'all are finding this feature useful or at least interesting. The more folks who contribute, the better this will be, so if you've worked an unusual or interesting job and you'd like to tell us about that job, I'd love to hear from you. Please leave a post HERE.


  1. Suzie, I like this series. I think it's a fantastic (and original!) idea.
    Keep your good works going (and promoting) :)

  2. Thank you, Dr. Simpson, for sharing your story. Having been a veterinary technician (working along side and with veterinarians my entire career-nearly 30 years), you are spot on. For me, no day was the same, especially in rural Colorado in a mixed animal practice. Agree, the veterinary community promotes wellness and preventive care. Now, as a veterinary technician who has reinvented myself over and over in my career, I continue to enjoy the path I have chosen, and the people and pets I have met during the journey. Cheers, RR